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Not ordinary okra — Vaccum-fried for chip-like crunchiness

August 16, 2011

Summer is just about over, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. While my kids went from camp to camp, stayed up late, and slept even later, I had to keep on going to work. So I can’t say I’m sad that school has started again.  I may have been a wee bit jealous. A wee bit. But despite the nomenclature of the so-called “fall” semester, and the promise of crisp and cool Saturday mornings as SEC marching band season approaches, we do live in Mississippi and know that we could still be sweating until Halloween.  Summer lives on via thermometer. 
To get a break from the depths of hundred-degree days we took our family vacation in the foothills of the North Carolina mountains yet again this year. Like all my travels, I try to plan a few eat stops based on recommendations from other food enthusiasts via sources like the restaurant boards at chowhound.com, Jane and Michael Stern’s finds on roadfood.com, or John T. Edge’s book,  “Southern Belly.”  That kind of planning allows me (and the family, when I am not conned into a McNugget stop) to benefit from the research of others, which can be a heartburn-saving maneuver. But it is also nice to leave enough time for spontaneous side trips and unexpected discoveries. 
Our first stop on this trip was an amalgam of all that – a planned visit based on a previous trip’s unexpected discovery, which also happened to be predicated by a friend’s recommendation. On a wedding trip last year, we turned east  down Highway 280, just a few miles off I-459 in Birmingham, where I spotted one of my favorite grocery stores nestled in a shopping center on the right - The Fresh Market.  I loved shopping there when I lived in Asheville – lots of unique ingredients, a fun bulk section, and classical music playing amid the soft lighting. It was a relaxing shopping experience. 
On this year’s trip we went out of the way a few miles just to shop at TFM again. I had a want list of oddities I could not find here in town, but mostly we went for the okra. Back in 2008, a friend in N.C. told me a tale of an office party where he had found big bowl of whole okra tucked amongst the usual party fare. Not battered, not pickled, not boiled – just whole okra. With some coaxing, he picked up a piece and bit into it, whereupon – to his great surprise – it crunched and shattered in his mouth like a potato chip. He later learned that it had been fried under a vacuum (though I have not been able to confirm this technique) which gave it a potato-chip like crunch without being at all greasy. 
Keep in mind that I had this conversation in 2008. When I found this TFM in 2010 my first thought was: they have the okra. That’s the way my mind is connected to my taste buds. It was my great relief to find that the okra was still available two years later, as well as some other interesting veggie chips: taro, carrot, and green beans, just to name a few. Fast forward to summer of 2011 - we went back for more of the same, but also added some fruit chips to our basket. I’m not talking about banana chips or apple chips – been there, done that. This mix had honeydew melon and star fruit, and they were especially yummy. 
Sadly, aside from the okra and its fried cousins, I didn’t find too many other items on my want list that day. But do you think that stopped me?  Oh no. There was still the produce section. Last year we bought plumcots (a cross between plums and apricots) – or were they pluots? Maybe apriums? So many hybrids, so little time. This year I grabbed some variation of a honeydew melon (in its original state) and some tiny little baby zucchini. As we made our way through the store, I realized that shopping hungry is far less dangerous than shopping after reading a Rachel Ray magazine. 
Oddly enough, the bride from the wedding we were destined for when we found TFM last year has now moved to Birmingham, so we texted her as we were coming into town: “Will be at TFM in 20 minutes – be there.”  And she showed up, with a mutual friend in tow. In the course of our conversation, knowing my proclivity for and interest in all things edible, she let us in on a little secret – there is a Whole Foods Store down the highway, just on the other side of the interstate. Road trip, anyone?

Jay Reed is a local columnist. Email him at eatsoneate@gmail.com.

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